The County of Wetaskiwin will bring in a policy to spread certain firefighting costs across all property owners after a strong debate at their regular council meeting Dec. 18.
The issue of covering firefighting costs was raised several weeks ago by municipal fire chief Mike Zajak, who had presented to council on the issue of local fire departments presenting residents with firefighting bills sometimes ranging into the thousands of dollars.
It should be noted that there is a difference between insurance coverage for property damages caused by fire, and firefighting costs that include staff, fire-fighting vehicles etc. It’s been noted at county meetings before that some people get these costs mixed up.
The discussion also included the fact that some other municipalities do not direct bill for firefighting costs; some have a mill rate in place that collects a small fee from every property owner, then places that fee in an account and uses the money to pay for firefighting costs as they arise.
The issue was presented to council by assistant CAO Jeff Chipley, who stated in his memo, “On July 3, 2018 at the Council General meeting, Council tasked Administration to calculate the costs to have taxation cover emergency responses, instead of the current fee for service model currently being utilized.”
Chipley stated in his memo staff looked at the past four years to estimate what effect a countywide fee would have on ratepayers. “The following is a table of the four year average of invoiced revenues per fire zone that would need to be covered County wide by taxes on an annual basis totaling $217,993.25. Council requested Administration calculate special tax that would work for all County fire zones. The calculations were obtained from the Assessment Department and based on the 2017 assessment of total taxable assessment; the calculation for the special tax is .077 mills. This means the dollar value per $100,000 of assessment is $7.68. For example a property assessed at $400,000 would cost the property owner $30.72/yr.”
Much of the debate centered on whether all emergency services should be covered, or only medical response calls. Councilor Kathy Rooyakkers supported the later.
Councilor Josh Bishop stated he was aware private insurance companies offer coverage for firefighting services and was opposed to charging a mill rate for something that’s covered in insurance policies. “We’re duplicating a service,” said Bishop.
Councilor Ken Adair stated that, looking at the agenda memo and the prediction of roughly $30 per household, the cost is very low for an important service. Councilor Bill Krahn agreed.
Councilor Lyle Seely stated he thought, during strategic planning sessions, councilors had reached a consensus to support a flat fee for countywide firefighting services.
Reeve Terry Van de Kraats stated he’d heard from some ratepayers over the years that they would accept the mill rate for firefighting because it’s one less thing for people to worry about if a fire occurs. “I like the countywide service,” said the reeve.
Councilor Seely pondered whether a countywide mill rate would affect service levels in different parts of the county; councilors also discussed the fact a mill rate is connected to property values, and property values are not the same in every part of the County of Wetaskiwin.
A motion was made to, in essence, leave the firefighting service as status quo but cover medical first response calls; this was defeated by a 2 to 4 vote, Rooyakkers and Bishop in favor.
The next motion was to go with what was called option #6 on the agenda memo, a countywide mill rate, and include medical first response. This was passed by a 4 to 2 vote, Rooyakkers and Bishop opposed. It was stated at the meeting this would take effect Jan. 1, 2019.
Chipley stated in his report, “Any Alberta Transportation calls (motor vehicle collisions, on Provincial highways), negligent burning calls, First Nations, non-County rate payer, outside County Mutual Aid, or any person who was in contravention of Fire Bylaw 2016/44 would still be billed to the responsible party.”